Tag Archives: Paul Bryan

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

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The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.